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Review: A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier
Viking, 2019. 318 pp. $27

Memories of the dead beset the house in Southhampton, England, where Violet Speedwell lives with her widowed mother. It’s 1932, sixteen years since Violet’s older brother was killed in the Great War, but to Mrs. Speedwell, it’s as though he died yesterday. She grieves him and her late husband to such lengths that she has no room in her heart for Violet, nor even for her other son, Tom, though he’s given her two grandchildren. In fact, Mrs. Speedwell is so unfailingly nasty, impossible to please, and entirely self-centered — talking nonstop of how she’s been put upon — that Violet comes to the end of a very long rope. She moves to Winchester, where she rents a room in a boardinghouse and obtains a transfer to a branch of the insurance company where she works as a typist.

Be it known that Violet is thirty-eight, lost her fiancé in the war, and has moved all of twelve miles. She’s one of many Englishwomen who remain “spinsters,” as they are called, with tacit or explicit disdain, the uncounted casualties of war. But her mother has never uttered a word of sympathy or condolence. And to no surprise, when Violet leaves, Mrs. Speedwell throws a fit worthy of King Lear and is not in the least mollified by her daughter’s weekly visits. Said pilgrimages, incidentally, cost train fare that Mum would never think to underwrite, a sacrifice because Violet’s job in Winchester covers the rent and little else. Even people who don’t know her well remark on how thin she looks; she never gets enough to eat. Freedom has its price.

Then too, the other “girls” she works with, younger, less conscientious, or empathic than herself, snub her, except when they want something. They live up to their employer’s prejudices by focusing on when and whom to marry, which means they would leave his freezing, inhospitable office and bequeath a mountain of untyped insurance contracts. Heavens! Just shows you can’t trust a girl.

Looking for a social outlet, Violet volunteers to embroider cushions for Winchester Cathedral. An unusual idea, perhaps, but she loves the cathedral, which puts her in mind of other desires:

Over the centuries others had carved heads into the choir stalls, or sculpted elaborate figures of saints from marble, or designed sturdy, memorable columns and arches, or fitted together colored glass for the windows: all glorious additions to a building whose existence was meant to make you raise your eyes to Heaven to thank God. Violet wanted to do what they had done. She was unlikely to have children now, so if she was to make a mark on the world, she would have to do so in another way. A kneeler was a stupid, tiny gesture, but there it was.

I have to confess that embroidery has never interested me, but Chevalier brings the craft to life, because she invests care in who the broderers are, the egos involved, and the power struggles that inevitably result. These women can be fierce in their loyalties and ostracism, especially if they sense behavior they believe improper. Nevertheless, within this vicious sewing circle, to which Violet recruits others, she finds purpose, friendships, a measure of confidence, and, through proximity, an attraction for a cathedral bellringer, a married man twenty years her senior. Heavens, indeed.

The high altar of Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, as it appeared in 2014 (by permission of DAVID ILIFF, License: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chevalier has portrayed both the generosity and small-mindedness of English provincial life to a T. Another “quiet” novel, in other words, in which the author displays her well-known gift for characterization and deftly explores themes of gender roles and sexuality without earnestness. I particularly salute how she depicts women crushing other women, beating them down through social snobbery or selfishness, hurting the very people with whom they could make common cause. Without calling undue attention to the irony, Chevalier shows how Violet’s male boss exploits her, that brother Tom’s condescension and sexism undermine her, or that a man seems bent on stalking her–and still, other women find ways to cut her down, voicing the same attitudes that men do. Through that, Chevalier wants you to recognize how women often attack their sisters or others who represent their own interests, out of fear or envy.

Sometimes, quiet books speak loudly. This is one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.